When I visit the new West End location of Vietnam Garden, the first thought that crosses my mind is that I'm cheating on Mekong. An almost weekly destination during the past several years, Mekong is one of my favorite Richmond restaurants. Vietnam Garden is a few miles west, part of a strip mall Asian community with the popular Yen Ching and India K Raja as a few of its neighboring tenants.
Upon entering the former Franco's, I'm amazed by the cross-cultural transformation of the space from west to east. The renovated dining rooms are replete with bamboo and Buddhas, palm fronds and Asian-inspired paintings. The only vestige of Franco's is the brick oven, the site of a diorama of hens and chicks.
The lunch special ($7.50) is a mainstay of many Vietnamese restaurant menus and usually includes soup, spring roll and an entree. I'm a creature of habit and on my first visit I order my usual hot and sour soup, fresh spring roll and lemon grass chicken. Vietnam Garden doesn't disappoint. The soup is one of Richmond's better versions with a spicy, rich and thick broth, big chunks of silky tofu, bits of chicken and pork, chopped green onion, mushrooms and bean sprouts. The fresh spring roll tightly wraps a combination of rice noodles, shrimp and pork as well as lettuce and bean sprouts with a side of spicy peanut sauce. My lemon grass chicken is flavorful but not quite spicy enough, and the celery and onions far outnumber the chunks of chicken on my plate.
On a return trip for dinner I'm surprised by how quiet the restaurant is on a Friday night. Service is gracious and quick when we order a round of appetizers. This is where Vietnam Garden excels. Fried garden dumplings ($4.95) are exceptional — crisp fried pockets of gingery pork are served with a piquant ginger sauce. As for the bAhn mAª tA'm chiA¦n, or shrimp toast ($5.95) — which originated in China but spread with trade to Southeast Asia — Vietnam Garden elevates these tasty fried shrimp toasts to the level of canapAcs, with their elegant circular shape and coating of sesame seeds.
BAhn xA"o translates to sizzling crepe ($6.95) and is a great example of how complex the lineage of certain foods can be. Crepes suggest the influence of French imperialism, but this variety also bears some resemblance to Indian dosas, and the turmeric that gives them their distinctive yellow color suggests Indian influence as well. No matter their origins, they taste great. Stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, they're a complex melding of textures and flavors and a meal in themselves. ChA giAý or crispy spring rolls ($3 for two) are served piping hot with a filling of ground pork, cellophane noodles, carrots, mushroom, onions and what the menu calls jacamar. I assume they mean jicama, not the tropical Brazilian bird jacamar.
Our entrees aren't as even in execution or presentation. BA§n bAý nurA3ng, or grilled beef with noodles ($7.50), is a refreshing dish on a hot summer night. Thin pieces of grilled beef are served with fresh lettuce, basil, sprouts and cucumbers over cold vermicelli noodles and best eaten with a liberal splash of chili-spiked fish sauce.
LA›u bAý, the spicy beef hot pot ($12.95 or $18.95) is more flash than content. Slices of beef, mushrooms, cabbage and tofu swim in a hot and spicy broth. While the Sterno-heated pot keeps the broth at a low boil, its contents suffer. The beef quickly becomes almost too tough to eat and the tofu nearly dissolves. Somehow the flavorful broth fails to hold it all together.
DA' nurA3ng tam vi ($14.95) is a combination platter with grilled meatballs, beef roll and shrimp cooked on sugarcane. Rice paper, noodles and fresh lettuce, carrots and cucumbers are provided for a do-it-yourself rolling experience, a struggle for my sons, almost 5 and 6, and the start of a miniwar across the table. While the process is a lot of fun, I'm underwhelmed by the ingredients. The skewered meatballs are good but the beef roll is overcooked and tough. The shrimp preparation is a new experience for me. Ground shrimp is mixed with honey and garlic and cooked around a piece of sugarcane. Unfortunately the result is more akin to a seafood version of Spam than shrimp.
While Vietnam Garden is a fine lunch venue with impressive appetizers, I find myself wanting more. The beautiful space deserves a more interesting and consistent execution of dishes to become a destination dining spot that can lure loyal patrons away from their favorites.
Vietnam Garden ($)
9031 W. Broad St.
Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.